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How the GOP Lost the Muslim Vote

Republican governors trying to stop Syrian refugees from settling in their states is the latest point of tension between the GOP and American Muslims. It didn’t have to be this way.

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

Yesterday Bruce Rauner announced that his administration would “consider all our legal options” in temporarily halting the settlement of Syrian refugees in Illinois, in the wake of perhaps unfounded reports that one of the terrorists behind the attacks in Paris was one of them. Though it’s unlikely that there are any legal options to halt their settlement, other than pulling any assistance the state might give, Rauner is hardly alone—27 governors, all Republican, have all said the same thing.

Perhaps it’s not at all surprising. But things could have gone very differently, had the Republican party decided to lock up its once-immense support in the Arab-American Muslim community. When Rauner made his announcement, I immediately thought of a piece by Rany Jazayerli, a suburban Chicago dermatologist who’s gained national renown as a baseball writer. In “The GOP and Me,” he reflects on why his father, a cardiologist and Syrian immigrant, imbued him with conservative sensibilities, and why he continued to vote Republican for years. It’s not especially complicated.

My parents had settled in America to get away from an authoritarian regime in their homeland, and here came a man running for President on the platform that the best way to govern was to leave the public alone. All my parents wanted was to be left alone, to work and raise their children and own a house with a finished basement and a white picket fence. My dad, who had just obtained his American citizenship in 1978, became a reliable supporter of the Republican Party, both with his ballot and occasionally with his checkbook. He wasn’t alone. Most immigrant Muslims to America – once they obtained their citizenship – joined the Reagan Revolution.

[snip]

Believe it or not, Muslim support for the Republican Party did not waver in the face of its gradual Christianization. On the contrary, Muslims saw common ground with Christians on most social issues…. Muslims shared with their Christian neighbors their belief in the sanctity of the nuclear family, and their belief that a household headed by a married mother and father was the best household in which to raise children.

The same sensibilities regularly come up as reasons Republicans should court the Hispanic vote, and resemble the reasons Cuban-American vote remains conservative. For a long time, it seemed to work: they voted for Republicans in droves. George W. Bush got 80 percent of the non-African-American Muslim vote in 2000. Just eight years later, Barack Obama got 90 percent of the Muslim vote. Two years after that, Illinois Issues picked up on the same trend Jazayerli describes:

[A] few decades ago, [Muslims] were solidly in the Republican camp, drawn by conservatives’ opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

September 11 proved to be a political turning point for Muslims, Siddiqi says.

[snip]

“What we learned after 9/11 is that it might not be in our best interests to be tied to the Republican Party,” Rahman says. “A lot of Muslims feared they would lose their freedom to practice their religion because of the rhetoric.”

The author, Susan Hogan-Albach, saw a small opening for the GOP at the time—perception that Obama, perhaps in an excess of political caution following widespread and widely-believed rumors that he is a Muslim, “appears to keep Muslims on American soil at bay.” Today, as Republicans line up to keep Muslims at bay from their states, that window seems to have slammed shut.

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